Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/367/6023
Fight The Witchhunt In The Firefighters' Union
THE LEADERSHIP of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has banned the organisation Grassroots FBU after a six-month inquiry headed by soon-to-be-retiring assistant general secretary Mike Fordham.
The decision, which was passed by eleven votes to five by the union's national executive on 11 October, is a pre-emptive strike to try and prevent the Left from effectively challenging the union's discredited leading group - including general secretary Andy Gilchrist and national organiser John McGhee - in the forthcoming elections and must be challenged by all FBU activists and members.
The union is going into a crucial period over the next year, when the assistant general secretary and general secretary's positions will be contested.
Since the end of the national fire dispute in June 2003, the FBU has gone through a period of increasing internal turmoil. There is growing anger at the union's ruling group for negotiating a shoddy deal, which has left the FBU open to further attacks from increasingly aggressive employers.
Only after a recalled FBU conference, where members said they had had enough of retreating and launched a ballot for national strike action were the bosses forced to step down recently.
At the same time, there have been increasing demands for greater accountability of the leadership from groups like Grassroots FBU and others on the Left.
Tensions reached such a point earlier in the year that Gilchrist took three months off for 'health' problems, missing the union's recalled conference and returning to work in time for the TUC Congress.
The period since the end of the strike has also seen the development of a harder Left on the union's executive who are more effectively challenging Gilchrist and his supporters.
Even the group on the national executive of the union who still support Gilchrist feel that he is unelectable if he stands in the general secretary election next year.
The banning of Grassroots FBU was to be accompanied by an attempt to discipline four FBU members from London associated with Grassroots FBU - Paul Embery, Andy Dark, Gordon Fielden and Matt Wrack - but this was blocked by the FBU executive member for London, Mick Shaw, under the union rules which allows him to veto such action. However, the Union's bureaucracy will attempt to drive through a rule change at its next conference, effectively removing the important check and balance of the relevant EC member's veto.
The result of this dangerous precedent will inevitably be further suspensions of this nature. The decision to pursue this reactionary course of action was only narrowly passed by eight votes to seven at the Union's Executive.
The evidence against those involved in Grassroots FBU is reminiscent of the type of catch-all witch-hunts which were conducted in the Labour Party against Militant supporters - forerunners of the Socialist Party. They are accused of being an "unauthorised organisation operating within the FBU, contrary to the policies of the union and/or in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union".
Consequently, "participation" in Grassroots FBU will not be permitted.
Matt Wrack in particular was thought to be a likely candidate for contesting elections next year. Since the announcement of the ban on Grassroots FBU, he has said he will contest the assistant general secretary election, which will be seen as a litmus test over the direction of the union before the general secretary election, which is likely to follow soon after.
Grassroots FBU is one representation, amongst others, of a growing move to the Left in the union - as witnessed by its decision to disaffiliate from the Labour Party at its annual conference - which has seen the current leadership increasingly under pressure.
But it is crucial that the different Left groups who want to see an end to the Gilchrist regime find a way of presenting a united challenge to both the ban on Grassroots FBU and through a democratic process agreeing candidates who can best represent the Left in the elections.
The banning of Grassroots FBU must be challenged by all FBU activists and members. A sign that the FBU leaders can buckle under pressure has been their forced climbdown over the suspension of national officer Paul Wolstenholme who was falsely accused of leaking union information to Grassroots FBU.
All charges against him were dropped and he was reinstated in his job last week. Similar pressure will be needed in the coming weeks and months to stop the right wing's attempts at a witch hunt in the FBU.
In The Socialist 23 October 2004:
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party features
International socialist news and analysis